I can’t tell you how to make a great grade with only one night of study, but I can help you make it higher. I am assuming that if you are reading this it is because you have a test in one or two days, so if this isn’t the case go read about some ways to improve study skills for your next test, instead.
The process of cramming is counter-intuitive for your brain because your brain enjoys learning by experience over time. By trying to force everything in at once, you retain little and nothing ever really makes it to your long-term memory. To overcome this, you need to utilize as many methods as possible to decrease the amount of information you have to cover, so the information is as tangible as possible for your brain.
Get Materials from Friends
This is one of the most important things to do in order to cram successfully. Many would regard this as cheating, but I completely disagree. The goal of a class is to try and learn the most important information. By having old tests and notes, you are more capable of extracting this information effectively. Furthermore, if a professor was planning on using a test again, it should not have been returned to the students. Look for old tests, lab sheets, notes, and more. You are not trying to memorize another student’s answers, you are merely looking for a treasure map to minimize how much time you waste on material that will not be on the test.
Don’t Stay Up Late
From all of the recommendations I have ever seen for cramming, this is a component that I have seen nobody else advocate. When the rare occasion comes that I realize I am going to be cramming for a test, I set my alarm for 3 in the morning and go to bed shortly after dark. You will have fewer hours to study, but the important part is not how long you study but how WELL you study. A sleepy student who has studied for 8 hours will probably not do as well as an energized student who has only studied for 3.
Eat Breakfast and Hydrate Yourself
Do this immediately when you wake up. Depending on what time your class is, you may need to eat again before the test. I prefer to eat lots of carbohydrates like pasta the night before, and then grab some fruit, oatmeal, and water in the morning. The human body is fickle, but if your brain is fed well then your performance will be optimized.
Hold Off on the Caffeine
I am not saying that caffeine is evil, but you need to use it wisely. DO NOT stay up all night and go through a pack of Red Bull energy drinks. You will be going to the bathroom every 15 minutes, and you’ll be so dehydrated and exhausted when test time rolls around that you may just go to bed. From countless experience, I have discovered that caffeine has its strongest effect on me between the 15 and 40 minutes directly after I consume it. If you absolutely need it, try to save it for a couple minutes before your test so that your afterburner kicks on when you really need it. (TIP: Caffeine sometimes tends to make me rush. Take your time on the test, and check your answers slowly.)
Cut Your Losses
If you are cramming for a veritable goliath of an exam, this may be your best approach. Instead of learning all of the material a little bit, learn half of the information really well. Hopefully your grades from the rest of the semester will be able to withstand it. (TIP: This will not work for most essay based tests!)
Break Everything Down
Take the material in small doses. Instead of trying to learn all of the vocabulary for a chapter, just do one page. Since the information on each page is usually interconnected, your brain will enjoy being able to quickly make new classifications with related information. My brain seems to prefer taking on 4 or 5 small new things at a time, but see what works best for you.
Make the Information Real
Sitting and mindlessly reading chapters in the textbook over and over again is pointless. You must find a way to make this information come to life. I do this in several ways:
Dates or anything involving numbers
I assign each number a value. I personify it with something I will remember because it is somehow related to the number. The number 7 is me when I was a little kid playing baseball, the number 9 is a German guy adamantly yelling “no” in his own language, and the number 2 is boobs. (Like I said, make it memorable. ) Once you have this, you can create a story. If I needed to remember something like when Quintus Sertorius died, I would imagine myself as a little kid in my baseball uniform being scared to death by some boobs.
Lists of words
I do something similar, but I usually incorporate a melody. Take a song you are familiar with (I usually use Rockin’ Robin…) and just start singing your words to the tune. It doesn’t matter if you can sing or not, it will help you remember. I have been using this method since middle school, and I still remember word lists from the 7th grade to the tune of rockin’ robin!
This can get more tricky, but it isn’t impossible. Imagine that somebody told you that you had to remember the following names and they only told you once: Harry Cooper, Rex Smith, and Adam R. Waters. What would you do? The first thing is to immediately analyze each name and see if you can make any meaning out of it.
Harry Cooper – Hairy is an adjective, and a cooper is somebody who makes barrels. Therefore, you imagine a hairy guy laughing as he makes whisky barrels.
Rex Smith – Rex means king and Smith is short for blacksmith. I would imagine a short guy with a crown failing miserably at forging a simple dagger.
Adam R. Waters – This may seem more complicated, but all you have to do is make a sentence out of it. At A DAM there aRe turbulent WATERS. This is an inane sentence, but you won’t forget the name!
This will be more difficult for some names, but see what you can find.
This one is tricky and will require more imagination. Again, use the personification method and see what you can come up with. For the Pythagorean theorem, I might use something like this: The letter A is trapped in a box (a square) and so is the letter B. These boxes are hurtling at each other at blinding speed with the letters screaming their heads off. Abruptly they converge, the screaming stops, and the two letters combine to create the letter C, still stuck in a box.
What about Evil Essays?
Essay tests are the most difficult of all to cram for because you have to demonstrate a much deeper understanding of the subject material. Most of your success on an essay will depend on your writing skills. The way I approach essay tests I have crammed for is as soon as I get the test I immediately begin writing down every name, date, place, event, whatever that is related to the topic on some scratch paper. I can’t tell you how to write the essay, but by having a decent pool of knowledge from which to draw, you will be able to demonstrate some semblance of understanding.
Good luck, get some sleep, and don’t put yourself through this again!